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Making an Impression : Stamps and Imagination Can Create an Oasis Where Talent Doesn't Bloom Naturally


Want a wall mural? Can't draw? Do what Kim Van Vlear did. Stamp on the wall.

Van Vlear of Laguna Niguel wanted hollyhocks and foxgloves to bloom on her 4-year-old daughter Victoria's bedroom wall, but she couldn't paint them herself. So she used decorator blocks made of flexible foam with a raised design, colorful glazes and arm action to press images on the wall.

Then she wanted trees, hydrangea, a hummingbird, butterflies and a worm. She printed those on too. When Van Vlear was done, she had a cottage garden mural that runs the length of one wall and a smaller mural that fills up a corner and spills onto the ceiling.

And she had joined a growing group of people who are putting their own stamp on home decor.

Here's the bad news for artists--Van Vlear saved herself nearly $1,300, one muralist's estimate for painting the wall. Van Vlear said she spent only about a tenth that much, all on materials.

Stamp designs cost from $5 to $7. A 2-ounce bottle of glaze is about $2.25, and you would need about three bottles to create a wall-length mural. The benefit of the glaze is that you have time to work with it before it dries, so you can experiment. It's best if applied to a satin, water-based paint.

"The stamps are great for somebody like me who's never done anything like this. You can feel really creative," said Van Vlear, a mother of two. "I never in a million years thought I could do it."

Her design scheme is based on an illustration by Jane Dyer that appears in one of Van Vlear's daughter's books, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

Van Vlear says she started with the room's only interesting architectural detail, three 16-inch-square windows set high on one wall. She put up pink wooden shutters with heart-shaped cutouts and then added curtains and window boxes filled with silk flowers.

She outfitted Victoria's bedroom in pink and green fabrics, sewing a duvet cover, sham, pillows, dust ruffle and balloon shade for a large window. She had the furniture made--the toy box looks like a garden seat--by carpenter Joe Hause of Costa Mesa. Then she started calling artists to find someone to do the mural she had in mind.

She already has one hand-painted mural, a faux window high on a master bathroom wall. But that artist was no longer doing murals. Van Vlear talked to 10 others but couldn't find one that suited her. Some of the artists she interviewed wanted to do the mural with stencils.

But Van Vlear didn't want the static look of stencils in her daughter's garden-themed room. "Nature is not as perfect as stencils," she said.

Van Vlear had given up on the mural project when, months later, she wandered into a craft store, the Stencil Emporium in Laguna Niguel. As a free product demonstration, they used stamps called decorator blocks on the wall; Van Vlear loved the effect.

The design detail is cut into the flexible foam by the manufacturer; a glaze is painted onto the face of the stamp, and the block is pressed onto the wall, said Donna Evans, who teaches advanced classes in the technique at the Stencil Emporium. The store also offers beginning classes for $15.

For Van Vlear, the decorator blocks provided the answer to what had been an apparently insoluble problem.

"My husband was encouraging me to paint the mural myself, but I had never painted anything in my life. I saw those stamps, and I thought, that I could do," Van Vlear remembered.

And she did. About 40 hours later, the 11-foot-by-8-foot mural was done. Van Vlear did have a secret weapon at her disposal, though. Her father, a professional illustrator, outlined such details as the tree over Victoria's bed and the steppingstones leading to the cottage.

He also helped her cut designs into the decorator blocks.

Plaid Enterprises of Norcross, Ga., was coming out with hollyhock and foxglove blocks, but Van Vlear couldn't get them in time to finish the mural for her daughter's birthday. So she bought a kit ($6.25) the company makes that lets you create at least four stamp designs, a sophisticated version of the potato stamps most everyone made in school.

Then she bought huge pieces of paper, taped them to the wall and tried out her design.

"One of the hardest parts for me was deciding how high the flowers should be. Did I want bunches over here or here? The paper was great [in helping me decide]," Van Vlear said.

Looking at a blank wall can be intimidating, she said. But Van Vlear discovered that, once she got started, the ideas just flowed.

The second mural grew out of a magazine photo of a toy gorilla sitting in a nursery swing. She decided to substitute a rabbit gorilla and use paint-and-stamp trees as a background for a real swing, which hangs from the ceiling. Her father sketched in the outline of the additional trees; she painted them and stamped in the leaves.

The process of stamping, in which the first impression is dark and the next lighter and lighter still, really lends itself to flowers and trees because the changing color values look more natural, stampers say.

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